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Stepping Backwards to Move Ahead

Some days it seems that there isn't an original idea on TV. The same characters are rehashed and rewarmed repeatedly. However, Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman, takes a look at how sometimes what's old can become what is new.

If animation stood still, it would not be animation, true? Even the most abstract presentation of amorphous forms or patterns would be expected to move or change in some way if we were to apply the term "animation" to it, and few among us would argue that a seven-minute hold of the Powerpuff Girls would comprise an animated short. The same is also true if we broaden the picture from a single short to the entire art and industry of animation. While the past decade may represent the greatest proliferation of technology, ideas, and creative personnel in the history of the medium, a look at some recent developments shows us that animation can in some instances move backwards and still progress. In this month's column I would like to explore some of those examples with you, and also take a look at the best ways to turn to the past for inspiration.Ways of Change Before we begin, some distinctions in the way cartoon characters can be represented over time: When a character is deliberately redesigned or modified, we have a revision. A good example of this? The cherubic representations of Alvin and the Chipmunks seen in the 1980s and '90s, so different from the angular versions first seen in 1961. A character who gradually changes in appearance and manner over time under the same creative system undergoes evolution; if we trace the appearance of Bugs Bunny from the 1938 proto-rabbit to the Bob McKimson "classic" Bugs of 1943, the concept becomes clear. Reinterpretation involves a previously established character given a new twist for the purpose of artistic performance, as happened in the 1980s when many cartoon stars were drearily re-presented as juvenile versions of themselves. A revival simply means that a character is restored to the screen basically unchanged following a long period of quiescence. This term would apply to, say, Mickey Mouse as he appeared in Runaway Brain (1995). Let's examine this concept first.The press release, seen several times of late: "(A/some) popular cartoon character(s) of yesterday will soon be back on the TV screen making (his/her/their) first appearance in (30-50) years. (Studio name) will be producing a series of 26 shorts for (Network) and Executive Producer (name) is enthusiastic about reviving (cartoon name), even though the current generation of cartoon fans were not likely born when (name) made (his/her/their) last appearance." The release may go on to say that the studio is certain they can capture the spirit of the original cartoons while adding a hip, current twist to them. For many fans this is cause for excitement but the most recent revivals have left me cold for several reasons. The most exasperating one of all? Most of them look, feel, and play so much like their original versions that they might have been dredged up from the studio vaults.

Disney's Mickey MouseWorks. © The Walt Disney Company.

Now, on the surface, there is nothing wrong with a well-made cartoon that faithfully echoes its origins; the best example of that school to date is Disney's recently-unveiled MouseWorks. I commend Executive Producers Roberts Gannaway and Tony Craig for reviving Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Minnie, and other venerable Disney characters for our enjoyment; no true animation fan could fail to appreciate the effort. However, the beauty of this series is also its curse; upon watching it, I could not distinguish any of its episodes from the Disney product of the mid-to late 1950s. For one thing, the character designs are stuck in time, as if they had shared Walt's mythical cryogenic chamber with him. The pacing and timing of these cartoons betray their earlier origins as well; a short concerning Donald's frustrated efforts to set up a picnic spread would have done Jack Hannah proud. A new slant on Mickey, Goofy, and Donald on the job looked like the same old slant as they vied to paint a rollercoaster. MouseWorks is frenetic, attractive, and entertaining, but simply picks up where the studio shorts left off in 1954.This is the biggest drawback associated with revival as a stand-alone concept. If a cartoon is not augmented by discrete structural changes in its appearance and/or overall mise-en-scene, the wheel (or reel, as it were) tends to be re-invented. Gannaway, in a recent interview with Animation Magazine, told of plans to update Donald Duck by pitting him against the frustrations of modern technology. Donald may now commit computercide rather than pummel his old jalopy, but if the Duck does both in the same fashion, wearing the same expression, then not much has really changed. Perhaps the biggest disappointment, at least for me, was the long-awaited revival of Woody Woodpecker; the variance between these new cartoons and their 1950s counterparts seems somewhat minimal. The stories have been livelier than those produced under Walter Lantz...but not by much. In fact, except for Woody, the character designs are weaker than the originals. But such are the problems that befall even the most faithful of revivals.

Methods of Change

Which brings us to the methods by which change can be effected. The first (and least radical) is rarely seen of late. Evolution is, and pretty much has been, a dead issue since the closings of the theatrical cartoon studios during the 1950s. Barely a studio exists today that has handled a stable of characters long enough to change them through evolution. The last major example I can recall may well be Chuck Jones' pucker-faced, cutie-eyed distortions of the classic Warner characters, including his own. (As much as I revere Jones, these designs represented an evolutionary dead end.) Perhaps if Nick Animation Studios holds on to CatDog or the Angry Beavers long enough, we could see evolution work its wonders again.

Goof Troop. © 1991 The Walt Disney Company.

Re-interpretation is far more exciting, but can be prone to mis-steps. Some attempts, such as Popeye and Son and Droopy, Master Detective have played poorly. Other re-interpretations have simply been misguided, as when the Pink Panther was given a voice (that of Matt Frewer) in his 1993 animated series. There have been others, however, that were passable and even pleasant. The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries managed to transfuse an old formula with a few fresh chuckles, and DuckTales actually plays better than MouseWorks. Come to think of it, The Goof Troop wasn't half bad either. Cinar did a charming job in presenting Little Lulu as a stand-up comic, and Sherri Stoner got some new laughs out of Casper, a terminally bland character in his original turn. O, that we could have seen where John Kricfalusi might have taken Beany and Cecil had that ill-fated ride with DIC continued; the few episodes actually produced were priceless.The best case scenario occurs when reinterpretation is combined with revision, and the more radical the revision, the better. Can anyone think of a better example than Ralph Bakshi's Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures? Working with a prodigious line-up of talent including John Sparey, Tom Minton, Eddie Fitzgerald, and the nucleus of what would become Spumco - Bob Jacques and John Kricfalusi - Bakshi completely reworked every previous conception of Mighty Mouse's existence and then redesigned him in a rave new style of which Connie Rasinski and Jim Tyer would never have dreamed. The result? This cartoon represented one of the best and most sophisticated efforts of the late 1980s. Nothing quite like it was attempted again...until now.

Michael Ouweleen. Courtesy of Cartoon Network.

The "Shorties"

Michael Ouweleen, the Creative Director at Cartoon Network, is a playful chap with the talent to dream up and direct amusing bumpers and other bits of business for his employer. Not long ago, Ouweleen generated a concept called "Cartoons That Never Made It," a bunch of cheaply produced shorts featuring such failed "stars" as Rupert the Grouper (who does not survive his debut), Frothy Dawg, and the ill-fated lovers Salt N' Slug. The highlight of this bunch was a short called "Heidi and the Yodelers," a dizzy Nordic take-off on Josie and The Pussycats. This short was animated in faux-Hanna-Barbera house style and was almost certainly the progenitor of Ouweleen's next big project.That project made its debut in June of this year on Cartoon Network when Ouweleen produced a series of eight cartoons called "Shorties." These two-minute gems, unpredictably sandwiched between regular programs, exemplify the possibilities of what revision and reinterpretation can do even for a concept that was minor to begin with. Space limitations prohibit analysis of all eight shorts, but a cursory examination of several will serve to highlight methods by which old cartoons can make a strong comeback. "Harasscat," animated at Curious Pictures and directed by Ouweleen himself, resurrects Pixie, Dixie, and Mr. Jinks. The original Hanna-Barbera cartoon was at best a pallid copy of Hanna and Barbera's own Tom and Jerry, but in this short Ouweleen and crew take considerable liberties to good effect. The mischievous mice now resemble roughly animated woodcuts, and Mr. Jinks is Paul Klee by way of Ralph Steadman. The eternal chase seems to be stalled after a court issues a restraining order against the cat, but Jinks solves his dilemma in a series of slow-motion, overlapping cuts involving a grandfather clock. Inventive, fast-paced, and funny, "Harasscat" is a fine example of how to update old toons for the new millennium.

Coleen O'Hare of Boston's Olive Jar Studio reprised the Hillbilly Bears as guests on a tabloid talk show in her short "Miss Understanding." Animated in striking chiaroscuro style, the Bears are prodded by a Springer-esque host as Ma Rugg bemoans Pa's inability to express his inner feelings. When Pa responds, it's a delight to Ma but quite a shock to the audience and the stage crew! By bringing the Bears out of the hills, adding a contemporary touch without the Warner Bros./Spielbergian overkill, and taking a risk with artistic styling, O'Hare has created a fine and funny update of an obscure chestnut. At Film Tecknarna, director Casper Kelly went the multimedia route with considerable success when he put a new spin on Jabberjaw. In "Let's Do Lunch," the animated shark and his band, the Neptunes, jump off an actual lunch box to do battle with former foes; this is done using live-action props against a live-action background. Jabberjaw is now pierced and sports a goatee, clearly has Attitude and would surely speak with the inflections of Trent Reznor rather than Ed Wynn. The Neptunes are more in the mold of Smashing Pumpkins, and Shelley has never looked more appealing. Oh, and did I mention the kewl soundtrack?

My favorite to date is a collaboration between Curious Pictures' director Mike Bade and underground comix artist Kazimieras ("Kaz") Prapuolenis, who put Tex Avery's Droopy and the Wolf through a surrealistic wringer. "Thanks A Latte" finds Wolfie ordering said beverage in Droopy's gourmet coffee shop and leaving the dog a taunting in lieu of a tip. Of course, Droopy inexplicably appears everywhere the Wolf attempts to go, grimly rattling his "tips" jar and demanding his due; Wolfie's office computer even sports a Droopy screen saver! As an extra treat, Red has a cameo as an office girl that would keep any junior V.P. working overtime -- at least, that is, until Droopy's angry visage replaces hers! Kaz' designs are indicative of character in this short; Droopy is given a large, distorted head that perhaps symbolizes his omnipotence. The Wolf has been redesigned with a longer, more ratlike snout that suggests his inner nature. Bade brings back Avery's distorted takes and rapid cuts with aplomb; when Wolfie (now totally deranged) finally tips Droopy, he produces the riches of Trump from his pockets in less than five frames. Yet this cartoon is more than homage to a classic director; its modern feel, disquieting designs, and smart dialogue mark it as a unique retake on Avery's original themes. Although this spate of "Shorties" may be finished (more, please!), other projects, such as John Kricfalusi's Ranger Smith cartoons are equally promising. Unlike General MacArthur, old cartoons no longer have to fade away; they can return in striking new forms ranging from the simple to the elaborate. All that's needed is the desire to jettison comfortable tradition in favor of daring new revisionism. If a new generation of artistes is willing to take that risk, animation can happily take a step backwards and still come out far ahead. Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.